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Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Sorry to Bother You (2018; Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. I can try, and will try, to describe it and its delirious appeal, but I have no confidence that it won’t intractably frustrate this effort, or indeed that I wouldn’t want it to. No one can be told what Sorry to Bother You is; like The Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.

If you know little else about Sorry to Bother You beyond the boldly-coloured posters used to advertise it or promotional images of star Lakeith Stanfield’s deflated, head-bandaged visage, I might suggest that you keep it that way until you can see the film and see what this forthcoming fuss is about. For those for whom a bit more (but not too much more) information is required before committing to a film, I offer the subsequent description and thoughts.

Stanfield is Cassius Green (“cash is green”, get it? I admit that I didn’t until the movie explained the pun). He lives in a converted garage (complete with inconveniently-opening overhead door) in the Oakland home of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), to whom he owes several months of rent. He hopes his money woes will be at an end soon, however: he interviews for a telemarketing job at a company called Regalview, whose lower management is beset by such a mixture of both boundless cynicism and aspirational buy-ins to business-buzzword narratives that they are impressed by the hustle displayed amidst his shoddy dishonesty about his work history (his fabrications include both a plaque and a trophy from previous invented positions) and hire him on.

Cassius initially struggles with the awkward, dehumanizing intrusiveness of his cold-call work (Riley visualizes Cassius and his entire desk being dropped into the homes of the people he speaks to on the phone), although he forms an in-the-trenches bond with fellow cubicle-bound phone warriors, including his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), whose hiring at Regalview pre-dates his own, and Squeeze (Steve Yuen), a labour activist intending to organize the telemarketers into a union. Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) even joins up, as a supplement to her work as a contemporary artist of wearing spectacular message earrings, preparing for a splashy installation-and-performance show, and spinning one-word slogan signs on street corners.

But his professional fortunes begin to improve dramatically when an older colleague (Danny Glover) introduces him to the confident, sale-making wonders of the White Voice (David Cross provides the White Voice for Cassius, with Patton Oswalt and Lily James featured as the White Voices for other African-American characters projecting this sound of carefree success and privilege). Cassius is soon promoted to the lucrative upper-floor position of Power Caller, using his White Voice to sell products and opportunities to the ultra-rich for RegalView’s society-dominating client corporation WorryFree, a massive multinational with sunny advertising who give their workers free room, board, food, and clothing in exchange for a contract of lifelong servitude. Cassius’ Power Calling puts him at odds with his coworkers’ strike spearheaded by Squeeze, as he is escorted past their picket line by brutal riot-gear-equipped security contractors to ride a golden elevator up to the Power Caller digs.

This tension between his striking proletarian friends on one hand and the luxurious and seductive world of handsome salaries, tailored suits, fast cars, and indulgent parties (as well as the exploitative exchanges that pay for those things) on the other tugs at Cassius’ conscience and threatens his relationship with Detroit, who sympathizes with the organizing effort and whose art critiques the corporate economy and its deleterious effects. It is, of course, the central dilemma that American capitalism presents to every labourer: commit to the difficult collective campaign for labour rights despite the costs and the deprivations embraced by hostile bosses and authorities alike, or take a more selfish path to a solo rise, turning onto the gilded self-enriching highway of the sell-out with the full knowledge of being complicit in the processes of an iniquitous system. It’s a dilemma all the more fraught for African-Americans, who face White-Voice-like compromises to their identity and community in exchange for a share of majoritarian prosperity. But Cassius will be compelled to choose by a vision of future horror glimpsed during a party at the home of WorryFree’s inscrutable golden-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

This synopsis is a hopelessly inadequate soft-sell of Sorry to Bother You, which is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize as done above. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it. This absurdity is complete and all-encompassing, Riley suggests, and the society that embraces it and ensures its continuity with the cowboy gusto of the American public is profoundly, troublingly masochistic. The most popular television show in this funhouse version of the United States, after all, is called “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and asks its enraptured audience to watch as a willing participant is beaten up for its entertainment.

Riley’s film goes whole-hog on lampooning this delirious absurdism, and several scenes and moments are astoundingly funny: the subtext-becomes-text nature of the automated motivational pronouncements in the golden Power Caller elevator, Squeeze’s uncomfortably personal revelations shouted through a protest bullhorn, everything involving White Voices and the Equisapiens (just wait and see). Detroit’s performance art sequence breathes comic life into the low-hanging fruit of making a farce of the already-farcical realm of contemporary art and its political pretensions. And if the code-switching commentary of the White Voice wasn’t enough, Riley mocks the racist assumption on the part of Lift’s affluent Caucasian partygoers that Cassius can rap just because he’s African-American in a moment worthy of Spike Lee’s uncompromising sensibilities.

Spike Lee is a key talisman of influence for Boots Riley, just as Lee’s early ’90s creative peak of iconoclastic and confrontational films of the African-American experience is being recaptured and, in commercial and perhaps artistic ways, surpassed by films in the same vein in the recent African-American film renaissance (albeit served with far more crowd-capturing sugar than Lee’s signature works). 12 Years A SlaveSelma, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, and even Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman have collectively given firm and bold voice on screen to perspectives on the continuing struggles and joys of America’s most historically oppressed minority (who, of course, have also been its pop-cultural vanguard, particularly in the musical realm).

Sorry to Bother You fits into this encouraging wave of memorable African-American films, but also stands off entirely on its own. Boots Riley’s tumult of ideas in this film crashes down on the racial assumptions and white supremacy of the American labour economy, and the discomfiting subtext to all of WorryFree’s practices and initiatives is that American capitalists are incrementally reconstituting the broader terms of chattel slavery, still the most profitable and advantageous labour system in the country’s history from their point of view. But his spectacularly kooky Boccaccian vision of capitalist socioeconomics crosses and re-crosses the colour line, finding class and income oppression intermingling and cooperating with racial discrimination. Sorry to Bother You is a film of black experience, but more broadly and comprehensively it is a film of American experience, and thus a film whose anxieties and satirical targets are intelligible and even personally applicable to people across the globe within the seemingly-infinite reach of American capitalism. And it is an incredible film that must be seen to be believed.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews